Cathleen ni Houlihan

Cathleen ni Houlihan Symbols, Allegory and Motifs

The Soldier (Symbol)

The image of the young soldier that Cathleen ni Houlihan indirectly invokes is a symbol of Irish nationalism and sacrifice for the greater good. She tells the family all about the men whom she has lost, who have fought on her behalf, and who will be remembered forever by history. Cathleen ni Houlihan makes being a soldier for the Irish cause sound like the most ennobling thing a young man can do, which convinces Michael to join her and fight. The symbolic weight of being a soldier—the fact that his would be a noble death—is what convinces him to enlist.

Cathleen ni Houlihan (Symbol)

The Old Woman, who reveals herself to be Cathleen ni Houlihan, is a symbol in and of herself. She is not an earthly figure, but a mystical one, a symbol for a kind of divine female deity, or goddess, and a representation of the reclamation of Irish identity under colonial rule. Here, the Old Woman is a combination of varying traditions (the sovereignty goddess, Morrigan, a goddess of war etc.). This mystical creature, who had largely disappeared during the Irish Renaissance, is brought back in the Literary Revival, when this play was written, as a symbol of hope. By making the figure representing Ireland a woman, this myth of Cathleen ni Houlihan suggests that colonialism is a kind of bodily intrusion, that the female land of Ireland has been overtaken by foreign invaders and mistreated.

The Play Itself (Allegory)

The play itself is a short meditation on the nature of Irish nationalism, an allegory for sacrifice and devotion to the Irish cause. Some have even suggested that the play is political propaganda, meant to make audiences see the issue of colonial rule in a highly specific way. Indeed, the plot itself is rather spare, mainly consisting of the visit of Cathleen ni Houlihan, and the conversion of Michael to the Irish nationalist cause. In this sense, the entire arc of the play is an allegory for the rise of a political movement, a national call to arms and commitment to the integrity of Irish culture.

Dowry (Symbol)

Before the Old Woman arrives, the family discusses Michael's impending marriage to Delia Cahel, a wealthy girl in town. Peter returns home with Delia's dowry, a large sum of money that everyone is excited about. The dowry represents the family's promise of a prosperous future, the fact that they will be able to invest their money and feel comfortable about their future. Thus, when Michael decides to join the army, it is all the more transgressive because it means he is walking away from a stable and prosperous future with his wife.

Young Woman (Symbol)

At the very end of the play, Peter and Bridget ask their youngest son, Patrick, if he saw an old woman coming down the road when he got back home. He tells them that he only saw a young woman who was walking like a queen. In this moment, we realize that the withered old Cathleen ni Houlihan has transformed into a beautiful young woman, like in a fairy tale. This transformation is symbolic, representing the fact that Michael's devotion to the Irish cause has revitalized Cathleen and turned her into a young beauty.